Authors: Tori Centanni
Tags: #Demon's Assistant Book 1
The sun glints off of his ever-present sunglasses. I wonder if his eyes are bright red or all black or something. I’m sure they’re inhuman.
“Do all of your friends know about me?” he asks, nodding toward the cupcake place.
“I told her you’re my cousin. What is it?”
“What is it ever?”
“Two days in a row?” I sound whiny. I clear my throat.
“Such is the nature of the business.”
“Which is what? Buying souls for the dark lord?”
Azmos actually snorts, which startles me. “You watch far too much television, Nicolette.” He pulls the silver envelope from his coat and hands it over.
“Why the sudden increase in business?” I ask, purposely not looking at the name or address. Maybe if I will it to be somewhere close by before I look, I can make it so.
“It is the way it is.”
“That’s not an answer.”
He smirks. “No, it’s not.” He turns and walks away, whistling a tune I don’t recognize. It’s too jaunty for a demon and it makes me angry. Why can’t he deliver the stupid letters? I’ve asked, but he gives the same non-answer he does to most of my questions.
After a moment of fuming, I feel eyes on my back. I turn around and see Melissa standing outside of Sparkle Sugar. She quickly looks away and walks off toward her car. I feel the guilt slither and flop around in my midsection like a wriggling worm. I wonder what, if anything, she heard and what conclusions she might draw.
The letter is addressed to someone named Heather Bancroft. She lives in a high-rise in Belltown, a jumbled neighborhood that’s home to rows of bars and pubs. Low-income housing and cheap studios are built right next to expensive condo developments. It’s not a neighborhood to wander around alone in after dark, but it’s still light by the time I reach Heather’s building. It’s one of the newer buildings, with gates that surround the front door.
My usual trick at apartment buildings is to dig around in my bag like I’m looking for keys until someone goes in or comes out. Then I slip in behind them. But the black gates make that impossible, so I find a call box and hit the button for 8D. If she won’t let me in, I can call the other apartments, claiming to be a courier service, until someone buzzes me in.
“You’re late,” the voice says, and the gate buzzes.
I don’t question my luck, just open the gate and walk through to the lobby door, which also buzzes open for me. I don’t know whom Heather is expecting, and I don’t care if it makes this errand easier.
I knock on the door to 8D. A voice inside calls for me to come in. I twist the knob and push the door open, taking a step inside. Suddenly, water gushes down from overhead, cascading over me. I put my hands up like I can stop the ice-cold liquid. It soaks my hair and my clothes. Drenched and stunned, I push back my wet bangs and wipe at my eyes until I can see again.
I shiver, from both cold and shock, as water drips down my neck and into my jacket. My heart hammers in my chest and I take quick breaths to regain my bearings.
A blue plastic bucket has fallen onto the wood floor in front of me. Someone dumped water on me. Why would anyone do that?
A young woman stands just inside the apartment, watching me. She wears black vinyl and ripped fishnets and her short hair is black with purple streaks. She walks toward me, holding a cylindrical package of salt with the top cut off.
“What the he—” I start. She thrusts the container forward. White salt flies out. I close my eyes, flinch back. It sticks to my wet hair, skin, and clothes and gets into my mouth. I cough and keep my eyes shut, afraid to get salt in them.
“Damn,” the woman hisses. I hear the sounds of fumbling, a drawer opening and closing. Behind me, I hear the door click shut. Then there’s more fumbling and the sound of metal scrapes against a counter. A gun? Panic washes over me, then turns to fury.
“What’s wrong with you?” I demand.
The voice mutters about how difficult it is to get holy water. I use the lining of my coat to wipe my face so I can see again and slowly blink my eyes open. My hair drips onto my shoulders and the puddle spreads out around me on the hardwood floor. My legs and boots are soggy and coated in white specks of salt.
I stare at Heather—this has to be Heather Bancroft. She glares back like she might be able to make my head explode if she concentrates hard enough.
“I can’t believe it didn’t work,” she says. “Why aren’t you melting?”
“Because I’m not the Wicked Witch of the West,” I say. I try to brush the salt off my leggings and skirt, but it sticks to my palms. I look at the door, which has clicked shut behind me, and then back at her. Her eyes are wild and shift erratically.
“Are you a demon?” she asks.
“No,” I say, surprised at the question.
“Then why are you here?”
“I have a delivery for you.” I wipe my salty, wet hands on my sweater beneath my coat, which is mostly dry, and then reach into my messenger bag, glad I don’t carry around my laptop. The last thing my computer needs is a cold bath. I dig out the envelope. It’s only a little damp, but the printing on the front has smeared.
She laughs, but there’s no mirth in it. “Great. So I wasted my supplies for nothing.” She moves forward cautiously. I hold the envelope out in front of me. She snatches it and retreats back behind the counter. She tears it open, muttering, “Little demon lackey.”
“I’m just doing my job,” I mutter back. “And I’m not a lackey.” An errand girl, sure, but I don’t blindly do the demon’s bidding.
Except that I do. I suck in a breath and shiver. I don’t exactly know what the letters say, and yet I deliver them without question.
Heather pulls the card out of the envelope. Her eyes move over the words, flicking back and forth. The message can’t be long. Her expression darkens. She takes a bracing breath. I take a step back toward the door. I should leave, now, while she’s distracted.
But then Heather puts the note down on the counter and picks up a knife. It’s not an ordinary kitchen knife. It’s too long and the handle is too ornate. It’s a dagger.
I swallow, my throat dry. She has a dagger and she’s clearly been preparing for some kind of attack. I doubt she’s afraid to use it. I need to leave, now, before she has the chance to turn it on me.
She sets the dagger on top of the letter, and I hesitate, eyes fixed on the piece of silver cardstock. She goes across the kitchen and picks up a bottle of bourbon with a familiar black label. She pours herself a shot, downs it, and pours another before lifting it in my direction, offering me the bottle. I put a hand up to decline and she shrugs.
“What are you?” she asks. She’s looking at me with unmasked loathing, but now it’s more tired than violent.
“Just a delivery girl.” I should run, far and fast, while she’s busy drinking, but the letter is only yards away, lying flat and open on the counter. After months of handing them out, I’m dying to know what the letters say. I lean forward and take a step closer.
“How does this work?” she asks. She nods toward the letter, but stays on that side of the kitchen, so I take another step.
“I don’t know,” I say. I take a quick look around the apartment. It’s nice, with the kitchen in the corner of a large, open floor plan. What little furniture there is—a sofa, a bookshelf full of old-looking, leather-bound books, a coffee table—is pushed up against the walls. In the center of the room, there’s a circle drawn in chalk on the wood floor, complete with a pentagram in the center. It’s like something out of an occult movie, which is not comforting. Another chill runs down my spine.
“How can you not know?” Her voice goes up an octave and pulls my attention back. Heather finishes her second glass of bourbon and pours a third.
“I just don’t. I’m only the messenger.” I’ve asked Azmos what the letters say, what they’re for, why he wants me to deliver them. He’s not exactly forthcoming, and given that he saved my life, I don’t have a choice, answers or not.
I know I shouldn’t look at the letter, that I’m not meant to see what it says. But I can’t resist when it’s sitting right there in front of me. I don’t know when I’ll get another chance. The letter is a large card with a date and time printed on it. It’s today’s date and the time is six fifty-three p.m. I spot a clock above the sink. It’s a little after three. It clicks into place then, what it means. It’s an expiration date. I feel dizzy and a little sick. I wish I hadn’t eaten frosting for lunch.
“I really thought I could get out of it somehow,” she says, more to herself than me. “Like in the movies. The hero always gets out of the deal before it’s too late.” She picks up a photo in an ornate brass frame. It’s a picture of a girl in a blue graduation gown. She has brown hair and freckles and a wide smile. In it, she proudly holds up her diploma. “That’s my sister, Haley. I did it for her. And now I’m going to die and she’s going to lose me.” She glares at me accusingly, like it’s my fault.
“I’m sorry,” I say, taking a small step back.
“Like hell.” Heather eyes her glass and then stands up straight. Despite the drinks, she doesn’t wobble. “She’s only nineteen. She needs me.” She sips her bourbon. Her eyes meet mine over the glass. I shiver and not entirely because I’m wet and it’s cold in here. Fear chills me to the bone. “How do I stop this?”
“I told you. I’m just a delivery girl.” My voice trembles and my heart beats so fast that it feels like it’s vibrating.
Heather drops the glass in the sink. It shatters. I wince. She snatches up the letter and waves it in my face. “This is my death warrant, you little brat. And you brought it to me like it was nothing!” She grabs the dagger. “Now tell me how to undo it or I’ll undo you.”
I take another step backward and slip on the wet hardwood floor. My arms flail as I try to catch myself, but there’s nothing to grab. I fall on my butt. Heather yanks me up by my arm and I scream. That’s the arm that broke in the accident, and while it healed, it’s felt weaker since, like the bones will never be the same. She holds me so tightly her fingernails dig into my arm. She brandishes the dagger at me with her other hand.
“Tell me how to escape this deal or I’ll kill you.”
She holds the dagger against my cheek. The blade is cold, but it can’t be that sharp, because it doesn’t cut into my skin.
“I honestly don’t know!” I say, unable to keep my voice calm and even.
“You must, because you work for him. You must have seen my contract. There must be a loophole.”
I haven’t even seen my contract since I signed it. “I just deliver the letters.”
“Bullshit. Tell me how to get out of this! There must be a way out.” She’s shouting and I hope she has lots of neighbors and that her walls are paper-thin like mine. “Tell me!”
“I don’t know!” My mind races through things I can tell her to make her let me go. “I made a deal, too. I’m like you.”
Her death grip on my arm loosens slightly. Dull or not, if she wants to kill me with that dagger, she probably can, and this is not how I want to die. “And, what, as part of your deal, you deliver these little notes?” The note flits to the floor and lands ink-side down so it’s just a silver rectangle. “How many years do you get?”
“I don’t know,” I say. No one said anything about a limit on years, although Azmos has mentioned that most of the deals he makes are temporary. A chill runs through me at the thought, but Azmos would have said, wouldn’t he? My deal was to be his errand girl. I try to recall my own contract and don’t remember any numbers or expiration dates written on the crisp parchment. “I wasn’t given a time limit.”
She pulls the dagger back and puts the tip right beneath my chin.
“Liar! Everyone has a time limit. How did you swing your deal? How do I renegotiate my terms?”
Not a clue. I can’t even begin to guess how it works. All I know is that the contracts are signed in blood, literally. I doubt that lends itself to much negotiation. But saying so won’t do me any favors, so I do what I’ve gotten so accustomed to doing: I lie. “I’ll ask him. Azmos will tell me anything.”
She drops the hand on my arm, but not the dagger. “He will?”
“He really likes me,” I say. “It’s why I got a good deal. I’ll ask him to do the same for you.”
She steps closer and I step back, toward the kitchen. She advances on me until my back is against the fridge. “Will he do it?”
No way in hell. “Sure! Like I said, he loves me. You might have to do some light work for him—”
She hesitates, then drops the dagger to her side, but still grips it tightly. “Fine. What do you need to call him?”
My arm burns where she dug her nails in. My heart is beating like a hummingbird. I don’t actually have a phone number for Azmos, and it takes me a minute to realize she’s asking me to summon
him. If that’s even possible, it’s way beyond my current skill set, but it can buy me time, so I rattle off things I’ve seen in bad movies: Salt, candles, a mirror.
“A mirror?” she asks skeptically, but she backs away, giving me room to breath.
“Yes. And rosemary.”
She moves back so she’s a whole two feet away. I count to three in my head. Then I shove myself off the refrigerator and bolt past her. I run toward the door. I slip again, but don’t fall. I grab my bag, skidding on the wet floor. I fumble with the slick, wet doorknob but finally wrench the door open. As soon as I hit the hall, I break into a run. I skip the elevator and head straight for the stairs. I hear her skid and fall on the salty water. I reach the stairwell before she gets out of her apartment. She swears and calls after me. The last thing I hear as the stairwell door bangs shut is a loud sob.